Addressing problem behaviors with ASD children

Rosalba Maistoru M.A., BCBA


With the increased emphasis on the provision of educational services in least restrictive settings for all children with disabilities (IDEA, 2004), more children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are being served in general education classrooms. Unfortunately, a number of these children engage in problem behaviors that might interfere with their own learning and can be disruptive to the general education classroom teacher and peers. The purpose of this overview is to provide parents and professionals with strategies and techniques that can be used in different settings and the value in planning for and in developing appropriate interventions for their children.

Educators have long understood that behavior difficulties can keep students from functioning productively in class. Differentiation between difficult but normal behaviors and significant behavioral problems is often unclear. A significant problem is more likely when the behavior is frequent and chronic, when more than one problem behavior occurs, and particularly when the behavior interferes with social and cognitive functioning. A problem behavior perceived to be significant by a parent or teacher warrants attention.

When the U.S. federal law regulating special education was reauthorized in 1997, it revised the way schools were supposed to address disability-related problem behaviors. The amendments addressed this issue by requiring teams charged with developing individualized education programs (IEPs) to conduct a functional behavioral assessment (FBA) to look at the relationship between behaviors that interfere with the child’s ability to learn. They were also mandated to develop and implement behavior intervention plans (BIP) that utilize positive behavioral supports to address behaviors which interfere with the learning of students with disabilities and with the learning of others.

Long before the federal regulations were changed, behavior analysts were using applied behavioral analysis (ABA) to study behavior and to develop and assess behavior interventions. Behavior analysis is the science and study of behavior, behavior change, and the agents of change. The behavior analyst uses data review to develop theories as to why a particular behavior occurs in a particular context and then creates interventions to alter the behaviors. Information obtained from behavior analysis, therefore, is used to purposefully and systematically modify behavior.

ABA refers to a broad science of behavior change that uses the principles of learning theory and operant conditioning to address issues of social importance (Baer, Wolf, & Risley, 1968). While several professionals and parents concerned about children with ASD use the term ABA to describe a specific technique of instruction (e.g., discrete trial training), it is important to note that ABA offers a wide array of interventions and approaches to behavior change. ABA is a systematic approach to the assessment and evaluation of behavior, and the application of interventions that alter behavior. ABA focuses on the process of behavior change with respect to the development of adaptive, pro-social behavior and the reduction of maladaptive behavior. Various “socially significant behaviors” include communication, social skills, adaptive living skills and academics.

The term “FBA” comes from what is called a “functional behavioral assessment” in the field of ABA. Conducting an FBA involves the organized process of gathering information about behavior and its relationship with the environment in which it occurs. Its goal is to identify and determine the cause (function) or purpose that behavior serves for the student under specific environmental conditions before developing an intervention plan. The intervention is then based on the hypothesized cause of behavior.

One of the components of an FBA or any systematic study of behavior is to conduct an ABC analysis. During this process, the observer looks at what goes on before the behavior occurs (the antecedent conditions), what the behavior looks like (the behavior), and what happens after the behavior occurs (the consequences). Thus, the acronym “ABC” in this case stands for “antecedent, behavior, consequences.”

When it comes to identifying the underlying causes of behavior, there are three different ways of getting at the function of the behavior. The team can use (a) interviews and rating scales, (b) direct and systematic observation of the person’s behavior (e.g., recording of behavior ABC-style) and (c) manipulating different environmental events to see how behavior changes. The first two are generally referred to as descriptive assessments whereas the third is generally referred to as a functional analysis.

While several different interviews and rating scales have been developed to try to get at the function (cause) of behavior, reliability is usually poor and these should be used only as a starting point for systematic and direct observation of the person’s behavior. The interview, combined with direct observation of the behavior is what most people use in determining the function of the behavior. This is fine when the data collected on the antecedents and consequences is clear. Although most of the time this is sufficient in determining the behavior’s function(s), relying exclusively on interviews and rating scales should never be considered a thorough FBA.

A descriptive assessment involves the use of interviews and/or direct observation. In some cases, interviews and direct observation does not give a clear picture of the behavior’s functions and systematically manipulating various environmental events becomes necessary. During a functional analysis, environmental variables are directly manipulated to enable empiric evaluation of the maintaining variables regarding problem behaviors. The most common way of systematically manipulating the environment is to put the person in several different situations and carefully observe how the behavior changes.

Courtesy Spectrum Publications


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